Friday, July 4, 2014

Who are the really smart people?

In a blog entry entitled "The Curse of Smart People", the author observes:
Smart people have a problem, especially (although not only) when you put them in large groups. That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize nearly anything.
[emphasis in the original]

In other words, smart people supposedly can convincingly argue themselves into believing they're always right.

I've certainly known many people who, in spite of concrete evidence to the contrary, bullheadedly proclaimed the correctness of their ideas or work. I don't consider these people smart. At best, these people are clever. (Some of them aren't even clever.) I never trusted their work. Neither did anyone else.

The smartest people I've ever known have always been open to the possibility they're wrong. They know they're human.

apenwarr has figured this out, too.

Ironically, one of the biggest social problems currently reported at work is lack of confidence, also known as Impostor Syndrome. People with confidence try to help people fix their Impostor Syndrome, under the theory that they are in fact as smart as people say they are, and they just need to accept it.

But I think Impostor Syndrome is valuable. The people with Impostor Syndrome are the people who *aren't* sure that a logical proof of their smartness is sufficient.

Impostor Syndrome — what a dopey name for a healthy instinct. (And the ones trying to "fix" the "problem" are usually the real impostors.)

I got dinged a lot at my last tech job for lacking confidence. There was something to that, but some of it was simply my manager trying to make me play the political game within the company. The game requires that you mulishly assert your own correctness until proven wrong. If you merely agree to investigate the possibility of an error before being presented with incontrovertible evidence a problem is yours, you are looked on as a pushover, a wimp. It's sad that men — and this is a largely male problem — who were mocked and bullied as wimps themselves are clueless enough to reproduce this brain-dead attitude, but there it is. I refused to play the game, and that's one reason I'm no longer in the industry.

Some people legitimately have self-confidence issues. However, the vast majority of high-tech workers don't. They should cultivate a healthy sense of humility, and admit that there is always the chance they're wrong. Much of the time they won't be: they're not dumb, and mostly they're careful in how they do their jobs. But admitting the possibility of error isn't weak, it's prudent. No, it's more than that: it's responsible. Isn't that a trait we value?

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